Minnesota Wild: 2010 Stanley Cup Champions?
The sheer excitement clouded by the shadow of uncertainty in the Twin Cities has Wild fans stirring about next season.
The fans, players, and even the front office staff are already liking the chances of Minnesota making a step forward in the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup.
As the Stanley Cup Finals plays out this week, most hockey fans and executives will have their eyes pinned to their screens to watch the clash between the Red Wings and Penguins.
For new Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, however, he will be busy working on finding a new head coach, assessing the outcome of the NHL combine, and figuring out what to do with all-star Marian Gaborik, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Fletcher, who was plucked by Wild owner Craig Leopold from the Pittsburgh organization, was highly involved in making the Penguins the Eastern Conference powerhouse they are today.
"Being the assistant GM on three different teams, and taking all three of those teams to the Stanley Cup finals, there was a little bit of a wow factor," Leipold told Wild.com writer James MacDonald.
"Here's an assistant GM who knows how to help build a winning franchise. He's been around this business for a long time, and he's only 42, so he's coming with a great amount of energy and charisma, and he's dying to get started."
A 1990 graduate of Harvard University, Fletcher played on the junior varsity team in his four years at college.
"I'm making some excuses, but they were a nationally ranked program, in the top four-to-six teams every year I was there. I wasn't quite good enough to crack the lineup, but I played because I loved the game, " said Fletcher to MacDonald.
Fletcher's first NHL front office job came in 1993 with the Florida Panthers, acting as a scout, helping with player development, and negotiating contracts. He also spent time with Anaheim before accepting the assistant general manager position with Pittsburgh in 2006.
Now Fletcher has his dream job as a GM with the Wild, and getting the opportunity to fulfill his childhood dream couldn't be more exciting.
"It was first-class," he said of the process, which included two in-person interviews and several phone conversations. "Regardless of the outcome of the interview process, it was terrific to go through it. The fact that it culminated in me being offered the job was obviously a dream come true," he said to MacDonald.
Many sports writers and fellow front office personnel from around the league couldn't agree more.
"He is ready for this," said Toronto GM Brian Burke.
With a lot on his plate to start off with, he will be a busy man over the summer.
However, the bit of news all Wild fans and hockey fans alike wanted to hear finally came at the press conference when Minnesota officially announced Fletcher as the new GM.
Everyone wants to know his game plan and what he wants the team to look like, and Fletcher was not shy about his vision for the Wild.
"We want to be a team that has the puck or is aggressively in pursuit of the puck," he said. "Why back up and cede ice to your opponent if you can force the issue up-ice?"
The previous front office and coaching staff was heavily criticized by fans and by some media for not being aggressive enough on offense. It was a laid-back style of play that waited patiently for an opportunity, then tried to take advantage of it.
To their credit, the previous staff led the Wild to the Western Conference Finals in 2003 after being down 3-1 in back-to-back series against Colorado and then Vancouver.
They also led the Wild to two consecutive playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008.
After making some player changes prior to last season, Minnesota had almost half of its team completely new to their system. Combined with injury problems throughout the season, it was difficult for the Wild to keep a consistent lineup and a consistent game play.
Minnesota would eventually miss the playoffs by one point for the first time in three years, but the last 10 games could be a sign of things to come if the team can re-sign some key free agents, who, in most eyes, change their game.
Marian Gaborik, a large part of that picture, has said that he will see how it goes about his future in the NHL.
Although it's easy to speculate that most of the changes occurring in Minnesota are an attempt to keep him around, Gaborik has made it clear since the start of last season that he will test the water with other teams come free agency.
It's definitely a race for Chuck Fletcher, who must find a qualified head coach for Minnesota in time not only for the NHL draft, but also in time to hopefully re-sign Gaborik before July 1.
Although Minnesota may not win the cup next year, one thing is for certain: The Wild are coming back better, and are ready to make the next jump towards playoff success.
As summer rolls on, all eyes will be on Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher and Craig Leipold, and how they will begin to reshape this team into a competitive squad that will carry far into the playoffs, and hopefully bring a Stanley Cup home to the "Team of 18,000."
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